two little girls looking at a tablet computer

Kids and Screen Time: What Should Parents Do?

Kids are spending more time in front of screens than ever before. Should parents take away their toddler’s iPad?

By LaTina Emerson

It’s common these days to see everyone from young children to grandparents texting, watching videos, checking social media and playing games on smartphones and tablets. On average, kids are spending seven hours a day in front of screens, including desktop computers, phones, televisions and other devices, according to a 2015 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Digital media has transformed how we read and communicate, but is all this screen time bad for children?

What the experts say

Quoted text reads: “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” “In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete.”

For the last 15 years, the AAP has discouraged any screen time for infants and toddlers under the age of 2. For older children and teenagers, it recommended no more than two hours of screen time a day. The group also suggested having “screen-free zones” at home with no TVs, computers or video games in children’s rooms, and turning off the TV during dinner.

But as technology has become more pervasive, the AAP is rethinking its guidelines.

“In a world where ‘screen time’ is becoming simply ‘time,’ our policies must evolve or become obsolete,” the AAP’s media committee recently wrote.

According to the new recommendations, parents should set media limits for kids of all ages and establish family media plans that balance technology use with in-person conversation and other types of play and creativity, such as drawing, sports and playing with dolls, toys and other children. They should also participate when kids are using technology and teach children about appropriate digital media use.

Still, research on the pitfalls of screen time can’t be ignored. Previous studies have found that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.

So, should parents loosen up on screen time or remain cautious?

Child typing on a screen

Screens are here to stay

“We’re past the point where there are sharp lines between screen time and non-screen time,” said Teri Holbrook, associate professor of literacy and language arts in Georgia State’s College of Education and Human Development. “How many of us can go anywhere without our smartphones? It’s not just checking emails. It’s getting directions, finding out which restaurants to go to and seeing what Rotten Tomatoes is saying about movies. Young people are doing the same things. Screens are integrated entirely into our lives.”

Like adults, kids keep in touch with friends and relatives through Skype, FaceTime and social media. They use the Internet to do research for homework and school projects. With the explosion of social media networks, unlimited texting, video sharing sites such as YouTube and educational apps and software, a two-hour time limit on screen time is too simplistic, Holbrook said.

Children are still reading

Quoted text reads: “How many of us can go anywhere without our smartphones? Screens are integrated entirely into our lives.”Some people have feared that children won’t read as much if they use electronic devices, but a Kaiser Family Foundation report says this isn’t true. While young people are reading hard copies of books, magazines and newspapers less, they’re still reading.

“How they’re reading and what they’re reading has shifted more onscreen,” said Peggy Albers, professor of language and literacy the College of Education and Human Development. “Children and adolescents are now reading more books online or through Kindles.”

Authors of children’s and young adult books realize the way their audience consumes information has changed, so they’re finding new ways to engage readers, Holbrook said. The Skeleton Creek mystery series by Patrick Carman combines text and technology. The story is broken into two parts: one character, Ryan, keeps a journal, which is the print component. Another character, Sarah, loves making videos, so readers can view her videos on the Web. Passwords appear throughout the book.

Kids are learning to associate reading with physical actions, Albers said, pointing to a 2011 Huffington Post piece called “To Baby, A Magazine Is An iPad That Doesn’t Work.” It features a video of a one-year-old using an iPad and later looking at a magazine and trying to make it work in the same way. She moves her fingers up and down the magazine pages and taps the pictures trying to make them move.

Some are concerned about the ways children are learning to read differently on screens. Eye-tracking studies show that when people read online, their eyes jump around more and there’s less linear movement, said Gwen Frishkoff, assistant professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences. Researchers still aren’t sure if this is simply different or lower-quality reading, but online readers find ample opportunities for overstimulation: Web-based texts are filled with distractions such as graphics and pop-up ads.

“I think pop-ups are probably going to be a little more significant for young readers because their focus might not be quite as strong,” Albers said.

Their focus could also be challenged with hyperlinks, which encourage readers to move somewhere else before they finish reading, but Albers believes young readers are adjusting to them. It’s a matter of helping children understand which hyperlinks might be useful at the moment so they won’t click on each one they see, she said.

New ways to learn

Educational apps are now used to teach math, reading and science skills and to promote computer literacy. Frishkoff uses software to help teach students vocabulary, which can be difficult to teach in a classroom setting because each child knows different words and has different skills. The computer-based tool can be personalized for each child, she said.

Interactive digital books allow children to touch a screen, view photos and videos or listen to audio to better understand a topic. They can play with a 3-D globe on their iPad to explore regions of the world or learn more about insects living in the forest with videos and audio narrative descriptions.

Some education apps are better than others

Apps can help children learn more about topics from constellations to plants. Some apps are better than others, so parents should do their homework, Holbrook said. She recommends several resources:

“There are all sorts of really interesting devices to help children understand what I consider to be very complex processes,” Albers said. “I think it really depends on what the child wants to know and offering him or her the different kinds of resources that are available.”

There’s limited scientific evidence showing how beneficial these educational tools are because they’re so new, but time will tell, Frishkoff said.

Broadening horizons

Quoted text reads: “Access to digital tools and devices allows kids to move outside themselves and see a different world.”Technology allows children to learn, do and see things that might otherwise be impossible.

“It broadens their horizons in a really interesting way because a lot of kids, the only way they get outside their world is through the Internet,” Albers said. “Access to digital tools and devices allows them to move outside themselves and see a different world. There are more possibilities for their future.”

Albers and several Georgia State colleagues recently helped to bring technology to a rural school in the Western Cape province of South Africa. They applied for grants for computers, WiFi access, projectors, printers and digital cameras to enhance classroom instruction. It was the first time the students had encountered this technology.

“Students no longer had to rely on outdated materials,” Albers said. “We saw increases in reading and achievement as a result of integrating digital technologies into teacher instruction.”

The mind is malleable

Debates about whether a new way of learning and communicating could be detrimental date back to Socrates. In his day, Socrates argued vehemently against reading and writing, saying they weren’t good for the mind. He preferred the intellectual challenges of social interaction inherent in oral discourse. In modern times, teachers have complained that students are worse at math because they rely on calculators, Frishkoff said.

Some make similar arguments about the impact of smartphones and other digital devices, but science has found the brain is adaptable. It adjusted so well to reading—even forming new neural circuitry—that some areas of the brain are now referred to as reading-specific areas.

Studies show that when people spend a lot of time doing task switching, such as gaming, this may actually improve certain cognitive and motor skills, Frishkoff said.

“I think it’s fair to say that we have never been confronted with this kind of environment that challenges our task-switching capabilities to quite this degree,” she said. “Generation X and the subsequent generations are very good at this, and that tells us something very deep about the nature of the mind that we’ve known for a few decades. The mind is very malleable. It can rewire itself.”

Still, the brain does have some limitations.

“We really can’t focus our effort and attention on more than one thing at a time,” Frishkoff said. “This notion of multi-tasking is a bit of a myth. What multi-tasking really amounts to is rapid switching of attention between two tasks.”

For instance, research shows that driving and talking on the phone, either hands-free or handheld, leads to slower responses. If we’re spending time on screens, we’re unable to do other things, such as interacting with family and friends, because our brain can’t do both simultaneously, Frishkoff said.

a child looks at a cartoon dog on a tablet computer

The importance of being social

Babies and young children learn new things through joint attention, which occurs when an individual alerts a child’s attention to an object through eye gazing or pointing. The process is integral to human learning and emotional development, Frishkoff said.

“What you don’t want to do is leave your baby with Baby Einstein and not interact with the baby,” she said. “Babies need interaction. They need closeness and physical contact. It’s going to take a while before we know the impact of particular types of screen time on cognition and social development. It’s a brand new universe.”

As parents try to find a balance, they shouldn’t cut out screen time completely. When they do allow screen time for educational apps or other activities, they should use devices with their children. Children need to develop technology skills, such as creating films, podcasts, tweets, blogs and Facebook posts.

“All of those things have now become part of what it means to be literate in the 21st century,” Holbrook said.

PHOTOGRAPHY: STEVEN THACKSTON

This story originally ran in the Georgia State University Magazine